The Color of Law: racial segregation in America

Liz Branca, Contributing Writer

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The University’s Education department hosted Richard Rothstein, author of the 2017 novel, “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” to speak in the Elaine Langone Center Forum on Tuesday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. The focus of the lecture was on our country’s segregated neighborhoods and schools, as well as the inequality of educational opportunity. Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute as well as a Fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Haas Institute at the University of California (Berkeley).

Rothstein’s work discusses when the government abolished legal segregation in 1954 during the Civil Rights Movement. Rothstein claims this was actually the beginning of the end. Civil disobedience led many to be beaten, jailed and killed in an effort to abolish segregation, subsequently leading to the national decision to end segregation for the well-being of all Americans. 

Rothstein raises the questions: “Why did segregation end?” He makes it clear that even though 1954 was time-stamped as an ‘end’ to segregation, each region is already regimentally segregated. Rothstein continues, “So how can it be, that the biggest racial segregation problem of all is still untouched.”

In other words, informal segregation reigns supreme by governmental reinforcement; educationbased literature reminds us that inequality is a systematic problem that persists. Rothstein discussed the common belief of everyday Americans that issues such as residential segregation and segregated public water fountains are a result of governmental laws. Rothstein emphasized that this is not a result of the federal government, for if it was it would be a violation of the fourth and fifth amendment. Others call this ‘de facto’ segregation, but as Rothstein points out it is not merely ‘by chance;’ rather, this is a housing turned education turned economic issue, as private banks and landlord bigotry have led to the presence of predominantly black neighborhoods. 

“It was refreshing to hear Rothstein’s unrelenting honesty while holding our justice system accountable for residential segregation,” Harry Poteat ’20 said.

Rothstein claims the biggest problem that we have in education today is the ‘achievement gap’ between black students and white students; teachers hold black students to a lower standard, as they don’t expect them to excel in the same way as white students. Rothstein proves that schools are inevitably segregated because they draw from previously segregated neighborhoods, and policies attempting to lessen the achievement gap – such as the No Child Left Behind Act – must acknowledge the economic and social conditions that may hinder the progress of students of color. Even more frustrating, simply coining this as ‘de facto’ segregation makes it impossible and illegal for government intervention to attempt to desegregate the neighborhood.

Ralph Corbelle ’21 attended the talk and said, “I appreciated Rothstein’s brief but exceptionally eye-opening history of racist federally-sanctioned housing discrimination in the U.S., a history that is notably missing from our public education across the nation.” Corbelle wished Rothstein expanded on his view of white privilege; “he argued that white people benefiting from racist systems are not necessarily ‘privileged,’ but I think this dismissal of privilege can lead to white apathy and a general lack of understanding around racial power dynamics in the US,” Corbelle said.

Rothstein’s parting words provoke questions in regards to where law enforcement’s true loyalty lies: “How is it de facto segregation when the police and jailing system all were working to reinforce racial boundaries by supporting driving African Americans out of white neighborhoods?”

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